Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt called “Angela’s Ashes,” his tale of growing up in grinding poverty in a slum in Limerick, Ireland, his “epic of woe.” The book came out in 1996, when McCourt was 66. (Eric Feferberg / AFP/Getty Images)

Frank McCourt, the retired New York City schoolteacher who launched his late-in-life literary career by tapping memories of his grim, poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir "Angela's Ashes," died Sunday of cancer. He was 78.

Frank McCourt obituary: The obituary of author Frank McCourt in Monday's Section A said surviving family members included his wife, Ellen; his brother, Malachy; and his daughter, Maggie. He is also survived by brothers Alphie and Michael and three grandchildren. —

McCourt, who was recently treated for melanoma and then became gravely ill with meningitis, died at a hospice in New York City, his brother Malachy told the Associated Press.

"I'm a late bloomer," a 66-year-old McCourt told the New York Times shortly after publication of "Angela's Ashes" in 1996.

McCourt, the Brooklyn-born son of Irish immigrants who returned to Ireland with the family during the Depression when he was 4 years old, had spent three decades teaching English and creative writing in the New York public school system.

At elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where he taught for many years, he had always advised his creative writing students to write about their own lives and families.

But McCourt didn't write his award-winning personal tale of growing up in grinding poverty in a slum in Limerick, Ireland -- his self-described "epic of woe" that concluded when he immigrated to the United States at 19 -- until several years after he retired as a teacher in 1987.

Described in Newsweek as "the publishing industry's Cinderella story of the decade," "Angela's Ashes" rose to No. 1 on bestseller lists, was translated into more than 20 languages and sold more than 4 million copies worldwide.

It also won the Pulitzer for biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and was turned into a movie in 1999.

In the process, "Angela's Ashes" propelled its author from obscurity to fame and fortune.

The white-haired publishing sensation made the rounds of the talk shows, was the subject of a "60 Minutes" profile and was in constant demand as a speaker because, as Newsweek pointed out in 1999, "he's witty, articulate and he's got the perfect Irish brogue: lyrical but penetrable."

"At 66, you're supposed to die or get hemorrhoids," McCourt told the Hartford Courant in 2003. "I just wrote the book and was amazed and astounded that it became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize. It still hasn't sunk in."

When he returned to the U.S. in 1949, he told Newsweek, "all I had was this story. It took me two years and all my life to write it."

The oldest of seven children, McCourt was born Aug. 19, 1930. His parents were young Irish immigrants. His heavy-drinking laborer father was unable to find work in the Depression, and the couple moved back to Ireland, where conditions were much worse.

The family lived in Limerick -- in "one of the juiciest slums this side of Bombay," McCourt wrote -- where their small, dank home was next to a smelly, rat-infested privy shared by the other families on the block.

McCourt's infant sister had died of unknown causes while they were still in New York, and about a year after the family arrived in Ireland, McCourt's young twin brothers died of pneumonia six months apart. At 10, McCourt himself was hospitalized for typhus.

Whenever McCourt's father did manage to briefly land a job, he spent his pay drinking in pubs. During World War II, he left to try to find work in a munitions factory in England but rarely sent his pay home.

McCourt's long-suffering mother -- the Angela of the book's title -- sought help from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and sometimes was forced to beg.